Wye Valley Walk, day 7: Monnington-on-Wye to Hay-on-Wye

September 25, 2021 0 Comments

Before breakfast we meet the Couple from Chepstow properly for the first time, and have a chance to share our parallel experiences of the Walk.  S. and J., it turns out, live in Tunbridge Wells and are keen ramblers.  They’re not stopping at Hay like us, but plan to go on to Rhayader.  Not for the first time they make us feel like amateurs.  There’s another Wye walker staying at the Portway Inn, a quiet American much younger than us.  He too puts us to shame.  As we find later, he can walk up steep hills with impressive speed.

The Portway is a comfortable old road-inn, but seems on the point of shutting down at the end of the season once the few walkers have departed.  We collect our packed lunch – again, there’s no source of food on today’s route – and walk back down in the sunshine to Monnington.  Now comes one of the grandest parts of the path, the Monnington Walk – a mile-long avenue of pines and yews planted originally in 1623 by James Tomkins of Monnington Court after his election as MP for Leominster.  Centred towards its end is a giant sequoia planted in 2012 as a ‘jubilee tree’.

At the end of the avenue we enter a wood just above the Wye, above an (invisible) sandstone cliff called Brobury Scar, and before long we’re descending to cross the river at the fine eighteenth-century brick bridge at Bredwardine.  A visit to the church is essential, because this is where the great diarist Francis Kilvert died in 1879, at the age of 38 and only weeks after his wedding.  His grave is on the north side of the church, and a stone bench in memory of him sits under a yew as you enter the churchyard.  Kilvert’s diary is less detailed for his period as vicar of Bredwardine than for his time as curate at Clyro, just up the Wye – possibly because he felt such a strong sympathy with the landscape and people of Radnorshire.

The church itself is a strange building.  On first sight it looks more like a medieval hall than a church, and there’s a strange change of angle in the alignment of its walls before the chancel (allegedly wrecked by Owain Glyndŵr).  A heavy Norman arch surrounds the west doorway.  Outside a sign explains that the beeches in the church avenue replaced earlier trees whose stumps were ‘blown up with explosives by Major General Pitman who was churchwarden at the time’.  Thomas Tait Pitman was a retired soldier and a First World War veteran,. No doubt he missed the military life.

We continue past the seventeenth century brick Red Lion inn, and tackle the steep hill ahead, past Cwm Farm (the border isn’t far away).  The views back across Herefordshire get better and better.  We stop for refreshments by the side of a track at the end of a climb through a large field, just before a wood.  Two magnificent old trees stand near us, and beyond them we can see for many miles in the bright sunshine.

The track continues up alongside the wood and past Woolla farm to the top of the hill.  Next comes Merbach Common.  The word common suggests unwooded ground with open views, but this is hard going.  Oceans of shoulder-high bracken block our view and our way.  Things get worse later on.   Though it doesn’t seem to have rained much lately, the path becomes muddy and, as we start to descend, slippery.  Even when we’re back on the river plain the path is enclosed by trees, and hard to walk on.  C., still in short trousers, has to battle with more malicious nettles.

At last we’re in the open, and as a reward we find a broad green lane between hedges, a balm for battered feet.  A minor road leads to the river, and soon we reach the site of a well-preserved Norman motte and bailey castle.  The guidebook warns sternly that this is private land that we must keep off.  That is all the encouragement we need to open the gate and trespass.  We sit on part of the bailey mound, with a view of the motte and the river, to eat our cheese sandwiches (the Portway seemed to have run out of everything but cheese).  If schools still teach the Normans, we reflect, there couldn’t be a better place to bring children than this place to learn about castles.

Moving west we start walking along the track of the Golden Valley Railway, opened in 1889 and closed to passengers as early as 1949, before entering the parish of Clifford.  We pass an austere whitewashed Calvinistic Methodist chapel of 1827: signs of Wales are now multiplying.  A wayside barrow, ‘The‘new’ old shoppe’, attempts to sell us broad beans, courgettes and cucumbers, but we’re reluctant to add weight to our sacks. 

The residents here have a neat turn of phrase: a sign attached to a letter-box reads:

Unfortunately there are some snails which attack the mail if it is in the box for sometime.  It is best not to post mail in the box after the collection times especially over the weekend.  The problem has been reported to the Royal Mail by our Postie.

At a crossroads, and over a stile, we’re presented with a sudden epiphany. A panoramic view opens up of the Brecon Beacons, from Hay Bluff and the Black Mountains, across to Cribyn, Pen-y-fan and Corn Du, and in the far distance, Bannau Sir Gâr.  The Beacons smile in the early afternoon sun, and we know we’ll soon be back in Wales.

The rest is all gentle descent.  To our left is Priory Farm, an impressive assemblage of buildings, their stones robbed from the remains of a Cluniac monastery.  We’re befriended by a boisterous black dog, who adopts us and seems keen to show us the way forward.  A lovely stretch of path follows the Hardwicke Brook and then we’re in a series of lush meadows.  We’re resting on a bench in one of them when we see Ca. coming across the field to meet us, as arranged (on her way she’d met and talked to the Quiet American).  All four of us walk on into Hay.  The black dog is still with us.  As we enter the town it bounds ahead on the road, headless of traffic.  One car driver stops, then another, and finally a third, by good luck the dog’s owner, who takes it back to Priory Farm.

In the centre of Hay the town clock says four o’clock. We’re just in time to reward ourselves with ice-creams from Shepherd’s, eat them in the sunshine, and watch the world go by.  Our trip is finished.  Tonight we’ll eat in the Blue Boar, and tomorrow we can look forward to a morning of bookshop browsing before we go home.

Leave a Reply